Dear Members of the Seattle University Community:
On more than one occasion since I have arrived at Seattle University, I have received requests that I—or that Seattle University—issue a statement. The requests have involved issues that range from domestic to international, from political upheavals to natural disasters. The requests come from individuals who are earnest and thoughtful about what they are asking. They are also typically accompanied by descriptions of situations in which Seattle University previously issued a statement. In fact, such statements were extremely common.
When I arrived, Seattle University was issuing a presidential statement two to three times per week at times. This proliferation of statement-issuing is hardly unique to the Seattle University community. It is a phenomenon that has occurred at institutions, especially universities, across the country over the past decade or so.
Because I have my own particular perspective about when presidential or university statements are appropriate—views I have developed after several years of watching the norms and expectations around statements evolve—I thought it would be helpful for me, as a still relatively new president, to engage the community to explain my approach. Or, perhaps more precisely, I thought it would be helpful for me to initiate a conversation about when presidential or university statements should be issued.
What follows are my own views on that matter. I look forward to listening and learning from you as members of the Seattle University community about this recurrent issue. We may not come to a consensus or agreement—on either a general framework or about whether a statement should be issued in any specific instance—but I am confident that we will nonetheless benefit from a frank and open discussion of the question. As a reminder, should you wish to share feedback with me on this or on anything else, you can find me at one of my weekly Coffees with the President, attend one of my upcoming Town Hall gatherings or send me an email in the President’s Suggestion Box.
How Seattle University Engages on Issues and Events
Seattle University’s Jesuit and Catholic character is the foundation of our mission and identity. It calls us to educate and care for the whole person, pursue inclusive excellence, form ethical professionals and empower them to be leaders for a just and humane world. Through many actions that we take on a daily basis, we stand in solidarity with those on the margins and we reject injustice, violence and hatred. All of these commitments are rooted in a deep and shared belief in the inviolable dignity of every human being.
As an academic community, Seattle University engages on the issues and events of the day in a number of ways. As a university, the most meaningful and appropriate ways in which we engage with one another on these issues and events include:
- Faculty discussing current events in their courses and fostering open dialogue for students;
- Departments and units within the university hosting seminars, forums and other events open to the campus and, at times, to the wider community to teach and learn about events or issues;
- Faculty engaging in research, publications and creative works, often in collaboration with students that relate to issues and events;
- The university providing space for community members to come together for prayer vigils and similar gatherings to reflect, grieve and draw strength from one another;
- University policies and practices that reflect our deepest values and that contribute to an inclusive campus environment; and
- The university offering resources and support to members of our campus community who may be struggling in response to recent events.
Considerations for Issuing University Public Statements
On occasion, Seattle University (or I) may also issue a public statement. But, compared with the foregoing list, it is no exaggeration to say that a statement risks the appearance of performativity and is often a very poor substitute for more concrete actions. A statement can also have the unintended effect of deterring members of the campus community from exercising their own voices on a particular issue or event.
Nevertheless, it is sometimes appropriate to issue a statement. The following is a broad framework I have been employing in deciding whether to send a campus-wide communication in any particular instance. In collaboration with senior leadership, I have chosen to issue statements on a local, national or global issue or event occurring outside campus when:
- An issue or event affects Seattle University’s ability (or institutions of higher education generally) to pursue its educational mission.
- An issue or event directly and significantly impacts members of our academic community and their ability to carry out their roles and/or functions as faculty/staff/students.
- In making an official statement, Seattle University has a meaningful opportunity to influence policy in a positive way relative to the issue or event.
Statements from Academic Units and Other Departments
When I (or Seattle University) issue a public statement, I encourage academic units (e.g., colleges/schools, centers) and other departments to share that statement with their respective constituencies rather than issuing statements of their own.
If a unit feels that it is appropriate (1) to issue a statement that departs from the university’s official statement or (2) to make a statement in the absence of a university-wide communication, the unit should normally consult first with the Vice President for University Affairs to develop a better understanding of why the university has refrained from issuing a statement. Sometimes, when I (or Seattle University) opt not to issue a statement, the reasons relate to the impact a statement might have on other members of our community. For example, I have been told that frequent statements about mass shootings can create undue anxiety or stress among members of our community. This, among other reasons, has led me to generally refrain from issuing such statements in the absence of a direct connection to Seattle University.
I hope this explanation for my practice is a helpful one. Even though we may disagree in any given instance about the need for or propriety of a university statement, I hope we can engage on this issue in a respectful way that recognizes our shared values and our sincere desire to do our best for the Seattle University community.
Eduardo M. Peñalver